Our transit through the Panama Canal on sailing yacht Histoire d’Eau

08-09 January 2016 – 38’ Homebuilt Catamaran
French Ronald & US Rebecca, Aussie John & Canadian CJ the bikers, UK Ben from Sea Shepherd
Advisors: Edward – Tug Captain, Ricardo – Hydrographic

Day One : Miraflores & Pedro Miguel locks

A few days before the transit we met Ronald and his pregnant wife Rebecca at the Balboa Yacht Club. Descriptions of the boat as a “work in progress” and of the unusual engine arrangement quickly made us wary – Ronald was proud to tell us that he bought the boat for $1!
The two bikers spent one night on board, then stayed in a hotel for the next night which was ominous. Especially when they emailed to say that “If the motor makes it all the way to our destination I shall buy a lottery ticket on the way back to the city!”.
We confirmed the Friday transit but it was hard to make contact with the boat. The bikers left their bikes in our garage and then were supposed to stay on board. We had some beers at home then went with them to the yacht club where they were supposed to meet someone who didn’t turn up. When they heard that Ronald was not likely to meet them until 22:00, we took pity on them and let them stay with us.
At 06:00 we headed out for a taxi to La Playita marina where eventually Ben picked us up in the dinghy. The tiny outboard made for a slow trip out but we made it ok. Luckily we had been well prepared for the state of the yacht because it was pretty rough!

Histoire d”Eau at anchor off Playitas in the Pacific

The yacht was bought for $1 and needs more than a little TLC

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Ronald was in fine form even though the boat was not ready. He announced that he had zero confidence in the engine, then promptly leapt over the side with a piece of string to “tie the transom down so we could go in reverse”.

Ronald leaping over the side to tie the transom down so we could go in reverse

Pulling the anchor up was a manual exercise with the three young guys hauling it up by hand. Rebecca said there is a windlass but Ronald likes to do things himself.

The boys hauling the anchor up

Everything on the boat has been salvaged or homebuilt, so there are things like the bimini support being stronger than the stern cleats, the winches on the mast are very early editions, and there is a vast array of ropes and strings holding things together. We definitely would not be going out of sight of land on a boat like this, whatever the Captain’s experience and ability!
Edward arrived at 08:00 and we started heading for Miraflores locks. He is a tugboat Captain but is currently assigned to the dredging division which is not so interesting to us. He did say he would take our details for a trip on a tug but it would not be his.

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Panama Skyline

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An old lighthouse under the Bridge of the Americas

Ronald did not use an agent for the transit. Rebecca did the paperwork and he liberated some tires from a nearby barge and just happened to have four 38 metre lines lying around. Russ and I looked at the lines and were surprised that the admeasurer accepted them as they didn’t really look long or strong enough. Luckily it was not an issue, because while Rebecca’s paperwork neglected to veto going sidewall, Edward quickly arranged to tie up to a tug and another yacht.
From the beginning we were scheduled to spend the night on the lake due to the speed reported, but Edward said he would try to get us through in one day. By 09:50 we were waiting at Miraflores for a big ship to go in first, then the tug went on the sidewall with a 54-foot yacht tied up to him, and us on the outside.

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The tug and yacht moving into the first lock

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Rafted up outside the yacht and tug

The opposite wall was looking rather close, and then the conflicting instructions from the Captains were compounded by the lockmaster starting the fill before we were all secure! At least the young lads were doing all the running around and rope handling, what little there was for us.

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Lock gates closing behind us. The plywood covers the solar panels that are vulnerable to the lines thrown from ashore.

We emerged safely but the other yacht had not cast off from the tug properly before it blasted away from the wall, and the big yacht broke a stanchion as it was flung around. He spent the time waiting on Miraflores Lake doing 360s, perhaps learning how the boat behaves. Seems it is a father and son delivering the yacht to Colombia, and I reckon we have seen the line handlers on previous transits.
The engine overheating alarm did indeed start sounding right on three hours as Ronald expected, however he quickly sorted them and the engine didn’t miss a beat for the whole day, which was some 12 hours nonstop.
At 12:10 we were out of Pedro Miguel and starting the slow trip through the cut. Ronald asked me to drive a few times but mostly we were soon into the usual long day of trying to find a position where our bums hurt the least – yachties must have buns of steel!
The bikers were getting stuck into the beer from early in the day but we were amused to see them go for a sleep by 13:00! We did start on the beers around 15:00 when Edward told us that we would indeed be mooring in the lake and doing Gatun locks the next day. Russell wanted to go for a snooze but one of the bikers had claimed “our” bunk.
Not much to see on the trip. We didn’t see any crocs this time but we had a glimpse of a large brown animal in the water. We figured it was a manatee but it didn’t pop up again.
We were finally moored by about 19:00. Edward told us lots more stories about the Canal and its workings before his launch appeared to take him away. He said the Advisor time for the next day was likely to be around 15:00 so it will be a long day.
We all settled in with beers, and had a nice pasta dinner. We went to bed about 22:15 by which time the hard liquor and white powder was out!

Day Two : Gatun locks

We slept pretty well in the biggest cabin we have had on any transit, with a huge porthole letting in a nice breeze most of the night with the assistance of the fan. The boys were on deck and did get woken up by some rain that we didn’t notice.
The sun woke us up way too early so we were in the cockpit with a cup of tea by about 08:30. Fortunately there was a nice breeze for most of the morning so in the shade of the large cockpit it was quite pleasant. Ronald regaled us with lots of stories from his extremely varied life spent on all sorts of boats.
The bikers eventually couldn’t resist the lure of the water and went for a swim, despite the talk of crocodiles. There was no way we were going in after watching the clambering required to get back on the boat as there was no ladder!

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Lots of ships anchored in Gatun Lake, waiting to move North or South

We had a nice lunch then Ricardo arrived at 14:30 and we were off, and an hour later we were getting set up in the lock. We were scheduled to be alongside the tourist boat, but then it was apparently running late so we were going to go centre chamber. We were just manoeuvring around a car carrier when we heard that the boat was going to make it after all so we were to wait for him, the plan being to tie up at some bollards on the port side of the lock.
That was where the fun began, as the deficiencies of the boat caused some problems. Unusually, the catamaran has just the one centre engine drive, with the obvious loss of manoeuvreability. As we tried to approach the mooring point, the currents caught the boat and it was clear that we were not going to make it. Ricardo quickly said we’d go to the other side, where we managed to tie up, not without some difficulty, due to conflicting instructions from the Captain and the Advisor. Ricardo commented that the boat “looks like a catamaran but isn’t really”.
As we were waiting we saw a crocodile hanging around which we thought was very funny as the bikers realised that the warnings were not for nothing!
The tourist boat moved into the lock and we tied up next to him for the first lock down. A Panamax car carrier followed us in, which was to prove a problem, as it would push an amazing current in front of it with the piston effect in the lock.
We started the process at 15:45, and when the lock gates opened we untied and moved ahead. All was looking ok until Ronald got sidetracked with helping the guys set up a system that allowed for the dodgy cleats and winches. I shouted at him when we were heading straight for the wall and he wasn’t at the helm, so he jumped up and steered us away. I think it was at that point that the current suddenly caught hold of us, and the strong breeze helped to just swung us around until we ended up completely backwards! Very funny hearing the commentator on the tourist boat say that it was “unusual for a vessel to go backwards”, and then speculate as to why.

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Pointing the wrong way in Gatun Lock

Ronald obviously threw the boat into reverse but this produced an enormous plume of smoke that appeared to be coming from the bows. After lots of shouting it appeared that it was just exhaust smoke, and fortunately Ronald’s piece of string held the transom in place!
Ronald was obviously a bit stressed by this point but he managed to avoid actually hitting the walls, and thanks to some heroic but very stupid human fendering we didn’t damage anyone or anything.

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Attempting to turn around with the 25 HP centre engine

We had several attempts at turning back into the wind until Ricardo decided that we should get some lines ashore which was the right idea but the execution was very bad.

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Human fendering – definitely not recommended!!

A guy appeared on the lock wall to handle some lines and we got some ashore, but then the instructions were to haul the boat in. That would have been fine except that the cleats are dodgy and the winch not quite up to the job. By then we had our Captain, the Advisor, and the guy onshore yelling instructions, and then the lockmaster appeared to join in the fun.
Ricardo was understandably stressed by then, and CJ took it upon himself to try and explain to him that shouting at people rarely helps the situation. Unfortunately I was less impressed by Ricardo when I moved to handle the headline and was standing with the rope in my hand when he yelled back that we needed a person to handle the line. I turned to him and pointed out that I was a person, but he said he wanted a big strong man!! That was when I backed off and left them to it!
Funny that Ricardo later said part of the problem was that all of our allegedly experienced young seafarers had problems with the knots and line handing! Apart from the human fendering going on, I watched some awful knot tying and rope coiling from the Sea Shepherd crewman and the biker with his own towing and salvage boat!
We eventually got ourselves alongside the wall, and then the plan was for us to get across the other side to tie up next to the tourist boat again. Unfortunately it was bit far for heaving lines so the tourist boat manoeuvered closer to us, with their Captain joining the multitude of people yelling orders. The heaving line was thrown and landed with a thud on the plywood that luckily was protecting the solar panels.
By 16:25 we were all secure and the car carrier could move into position, which was some 45 minutes delay. By 17:15 we were out of the lock and heading for the Flats, still attached to the tourist boat. Ricardo said he would have five forms to fill out, and that it was possible that the car carrier company would sue the ACP.
It was windy in the Caribbean and quite choppy, and with the speed the tourist boat was doing, there was a lot of stress on the cleats that were barely attached to the deck. I watched the forward one starting to pull out with awful creaking sounds, so we adjusted all the lines.
Russell and I chatted quite a lot to Ricardo who works with the Hydrographic division. At the end he asked us for our contact number. Russell asked if it was for the report, but he said it was because he wanted to go for a beer with us sometime!
There was some more dodgy seamanship when the Advisor boat came alongside as Ricardo asked Ronald to stop which was never a good idea in the wind and waves. Think he might be a surveyor rather than a boat driver!
A woman on the tourist boat called out that she had our whole event on video and that she would email it to us. Hopefully we can get hold of that.
We putted around to the Colon Yacht Club, and by 19:30 Russell and I were off to catch a bus back to the city.